Gamers and developers are always at loggerheads at each other about the inclusion of microtransactions and DLCs. The gamer always asks for their exclusion, while developers always want their inclusion, and any attempt at reasoning by people attempting to play the neutral card are burnt down to ashes. A big part of microtransactions involve the concept of loot boxes, where you open some sort of crate/box/pack and get certain in-game items. These form a big part of supposed free-to-play games, and even in some paid games (bad developer philosophy or extreme gamer demands? You decide). The bad part is : you almost always never know the odds of opening a certain “good” item – and despite laws by the Eastern World (China, we’re looking at you), where e-sports is taken as a way of life, the Western World largely ignores “loot boxes” with random odds as a possible form of gambling.
There has recently been a huge controversy regarding the exclusion of loot boxes from any form of law that rules over online gambling in the EU, while the ESRB had created a controversy of their own by saying that loot boxes are not a form of gambling. This is what the world is coming to, after years of parents’ yearning for gambling sites involving cosmetics to be shut down, following which a cease-and-desist order was sent to Valve, after they lose many a lawsuits regarding the same thing. (Many people know about the McLeod lawsuit, and the clever way in which Valve tried to wriggle out by actually suggesting “they are going after sites that involve Steam”) Despite this, Valve themselves encourage the purchase of cases (a form of loot box) and keys to open them – with zero percentages given as to what items might drop out of the cases. “You might even get a rare special item worth a few thousand dollars!” is enough to entice youngsters into dropping a significant amount of money, and the yell in agony when they see their money go down the gutter with no good rewards of any kind being received.
If we’re talking about loot boxes, Valve is not the only company encouraging it. We have Blizzard Entertainment, one of the biggest companies, with Hearthstone having card packs and loot boxes in Overwatch. The problem? Blizzard’s bad approach to free-to-play design in Hearthstone, which means players are literally forced to buy card packs, and just hope they get something good out of them. Overwatch does not depend on loot boxes, but has the same appeal as DOTA 2 or Counter Strike: Global Offensive skins have.
Despite the ruling that legally nothing can be done to regulate or prevent the purchase of in game cosmetics (as they literally have no role in gameplay), a personal feeling from a hardcore Counter Strike: Global Offensive fan (and a DOTA 2 observer) is that there is a psychological strain pulling the players to try and open cases when they hear their peers talk about a 100$ knife which they had unboxed the other day. Peer pressure is an amazing thing, and big publishers can use it to their own advantage – to get more profit, without even publishing the odds that might deter possible purchasers of loot boxes. The ground reality is that no one in the world would give you 500% of your investment back to you. The statement “If something looks too good to be true, it probably is” always holds, but then again people deep into an addiction for cosmetics can’t give it up easily. Which is why the law should cover loot boxes as a form of gambling.
China is one of the nations which have very strict laws about e-sports, and about video games in general. Every form of online economy is controlled, including video game micro-transactions. Naturally, publishers didn’t like it when a new Chinese law asked all developers and publishers to reveal the odds of every item that can be received in the loot boxes. However, Blizzard had already found a legal work-around— they just copy pasted the idea of a “pity timer” that made item drops better with each successive loot box opened. Riot Games, however, decided to act as one of the honest developers, and revealed the loot box drop rates accurately. The question isn’t about which developer has the best customer friendly outlook, it’s more about which developer believes less in loot box philosophy as a way of earning a few extra bucks, and Blizzard’s move encourages other developers to take up microtransactions as a common feature in every video game, even full $60 AAA releases.
Gambling, by definition, is the wagering of money or something of value (referred to as “the stakes”) on an event with an uncertain outcome with the primary intent of winning money or material goods. Gambling thus requires three elements be present: consideration, chance and prize. (courtesy : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gambling) Just go back, buy a few loot box, and open it, and try to argue how it is not a form of gambling. We’re buying (that is, wagering a certain amount of money, as the cost price of the loot box), then opening it, with a uncertain outcome (as the odds are not known to us), with the intent of winning material goods (a decent cosmetic). It all fits, all anyone has to do is say “it doesn’t” and argue hopelessly for their statement to go in court. Loot boxes are a form of gambling, as it perfectly fits the legal definition of gambling.
ESRB’s statement just wanted to steer clear of legal troubles, as esports is not as serious a thing in the West as it is in the Far East. But leaving thousands of under-age kids vulnerable to the menace of loot boxes, a $2 billion global economy, under the pretense o sounds irresponsible. Even the statement on the EU laws seems politically (or economically) motivated, seeing that thousands of kids in the EU fall among the most vulnerable among the ones prone to the loot box menace (haven’t we seen news about kids spending $5000 or more of their parents’ money on useless microtransactions just because they felt like it).
It is time to end all differences and accept loot boxes for what they are – a form of gambling, just like poker, roulette or any other game commonly associated with gambling.